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The Way of Repentance

December 16, 2018 • Life for Leaders

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Luke 3:7-14

 

Big introductions require significant preparation. You’ve experienced it, I’m sure. Whether launching a new product or service for your business. Or announcing a new capital campaign or program initiative for your non-profit. It all takes significant time and preparation. In my business, we used to gather our customers together to showcase the latest release of our software. To prepare, we sent an advance team of people to deal with all the arrangements: making sure the venue, the food, and the equipment were all ready. All that just to introduce a piece of software.

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, public domain.

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, public domain.

What kind of preparation would be required when God shows up to announce the good news that he is the rightful Lord of this world and that he is about to make everything right? Surely that would be the most momentous event in human history. Who would be God’s “advance team” to get people ready? What would they do to prepare people for God’s coming? How would they go about their work?

Surprisingly, unlike my large advance team, God sent a single person—John the Baptist—as his advance man. And, unlike my team’s long list of things to do, John was sent with a singular message and symbolic practice: Repent and be baptized. God’s agenda was remarkably simple. Even elegantly so (despite John’s physical appearance). John’s message was for people to think, to feel, and to live differently.

That’s a timely message for the season of Advent. As we remember Jesus’s coming to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, and as we await his coming again to complete that work, we might very well ask the question that the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” John’s answer, as today’s text reminds us, is to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

For those of us who follow Jesus, our first response to that might be that we’ve already done so. We’ve given our hearts to Jesus and confessed him as Lord. We’ve already been made righteous by faith in him, just as Abraham did (Romans 4:3 citing Genesis 15:6). We might resonate with what the Jews in John’s day thought, “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Nevertheless, John reminds us that repentance is not so much an act as a way of life.

So, what does repentance as a way of life look like? To be sure, there is an inner, spiritual dimension. We must learn to think and feel differently about God and others. The Old Testament talked about a day when God would “circumcise the heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6). We must become open and vulnerable to God and to our neighbor in the deepest part of our being. But John’s response to the crowd’s (and our) question focuses on behavior. The inner work of repentance must bear fruit in our outer lives. Such fruits include generosity and justice. In public as well as private matters. In our work as well as in our homes. Perhaps most challenging of all for us: being satisfied in an age of discontentment. (How much is enough? Just a bit more…) Learning contentment means not fighting for our share but sharing in the fight for others. These and much more are part of the way of repentance.

In the end, the way of repentance is the way towards an integrated life. This Advent is another opportunity for each of us to journey further along that way.

Something to Think About:

Where can you demonstrate generosity and justice this Advent season? How can you demonstrate contentment with your circumstances?

Something to Do:

Find one specific action to do this coming week that is an example of the “fruits worthy of repentance.”

Prayer:

Lord GOD, we are grateful that in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit you have fulfilled your ancient promise to circumcise our hearts. May our hearts be open and vulnerable to you and to those you have placed in our lives as our neighbors. Help us bear fruits that are worthy of your work in our lives.

We ask in Jesus’s name and for his sake. Amen.

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